Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Accountable Ag...

The longer I watch the WOTUS hysteria roll on, the more convinced I am that farmers want nothing less than blanket immunity from pollution that occurs from their actions. In addition, we adamantly refuse to take any responsibility for anthropogenic climate change or even acknowledge that there are inherent production risks that should be coped with individually like other businesses do - insisting on heavily subsidized crop insurance and other economic guarantees we despise in other industries. We have become a fact-resistant echo-chamber that inhibits new ideas and supports an incredibly boring one-sided discussion of our future.

Our new motto as an industry: Nothing Is Our Fault. To be fair, this rather juvenile intransigence has worked pretty well, even as we brag about being the best farmers in the galaxy. But it is taking an increasing toll.

  • We are neutralizing the economic tools that select within our ranks the best-performing farmers. If we are shielded from dealing with the costs of lobbing economic externalities to the public purse via farm policy, we actually penalize producers who do work to minimize the effects of their actions on those around them - from noise to nitrates. We've all grumbled about or been run over by slash-and-burn competitors whose presence next to you impacts other producers, soil health, and community life quality, and yet at the same time railed against any effort to make the consequences of bad actions fall at the feet of the perpetrators. While I believe this will eventually be corrected, it will take decades and require heavy lifting to rebuild the resources we now abandon at the altar of personal freedom.  At the same time, we are enabling such operators to expand at our own expense.
  • Just like the Republican Party, we have made team loyalty the highest ethic. I had my epiphany in 2004, but this November may be a watershed moment for ag conservatives as they step into the voting booth. If parroting the party line  - or Trumpisms - takes precedence over moral judgment and economic rationality, we need to abandon, at least in our own minds, any pretense of principle. We believe in apparent short-term gain. Period. Worse still, from my perspective we are bad at calculating what that gain actually is.
  • Our insistence on being counted as victims is not simply a cognitive dissonance challenge as we strut about looking down at everyone who doesn't farm, it also prevents us from innovating answers to the real problems that we struggle with. Why work on soil erosion if nutrient runoff is really caused by climate change [which doesn't exist]? (I have had this argument seriously posed to me, BTW) But posing as hapless dupes or helpless pawns to avoid responsibility is an exhausting and humiliating deception that erodes our self-respect and ravages our heritage of self-reliance. Great-grandpa would be aghast.
Personally, I have been reluctant to put this train of thought into words. It is part of the reason I found blogging more a chore than before. It will only test the few friendships I cherish within the business. It seems high-handed and preachy, not to mention self-aggrandizing. So for these past few months I have assumed my simmering resentment against what I see as the hijacking of our professional ethics by right-wing know-nothings a temporary aberration of our history.

I still think that, but it has dawned on me as I listen to the the increasingly strident language of outraged entitlement in our industry, that those other times in history when we veered from the path of reason and compromise were not corrected solely by the passive passage of time, but by real people offering real resistance to something they believed wrong and harmful.

And like Obama, I don't have many f***s left to give. [Pardon the language but it strikes me as the most apt]

That said, it is not enough to simply find fault, or shout in anger. I'm a frickin' engineer/farmer - we try to fix things. So here is a different approach/mindset for our business that I think offers all of us a chance to regain our self-respect.

I call it Accountable Agriculture. Here is what it means.
  1. On my farm, it's my fault. All of it. My farm is my responsibility. Not USDA. Not Mother Nature. It is my job to manage the risks of weather, markets and economics of production. This is how I earn my living. Conversely, I claim no right to decree what rules are right for other farms and producers. 
  2. The impact of my actions shall be benign beyond the boundaries of my farm. If my spray drifts, you will get an apology for unprofessional performance and compensation to make you whole without anger or hassle. If my P & N pollutes your water, I will find an answer. Moreover, I will not support blanket absolution for our industry when we overreach into your property by irresponsible production practices.
  3. I have a duty to sustain not just fertile fields, but clean water and clear air. I use natural resources to produce and I take care of all those assets.
  4. I am equally indebted to those who walked this land before me and those who follow. For the extraordinary privilege of living this life, I deserve to be judged by my payments on those debts.
  5. My commitment to these principles is the same on every acre I tread, whether owned or rented. This level of performance is not without cost, so I will probably not be the absolute highest bidder for every field. This is a relatively cheap promise, since owners who demand the top dollar usually aren't worth the anxiety load. There has to be some "economy" in those "economies of scale".
  6. Regardless of how agriculture strives to offload the costs of accountability, we cannot escape them over the long haul economically or ethically. Accountable agriculture thinks in terms of decades and generations, not USDA fiscal years.
  7. I don't want to tell you my story. Accountable agriculture is measured by works, not words.
  8. I choose my policy and political positions by balancing what is fair not just for me but for the rest of America. I know farming is a tiny part of our population and economy, but like other tiny industries, we still matter, and so do they. I respect others who serve their professions with integrity and diligence - including government.
  9. My professional standards are informed by my faith, but not defined by religious dogma. Additionally, my position in our national and global culture does not grant me any relief from full accountability. I had no hand in being born white and middle-class, after all. 
  10. This is my path. You may have a better idea. I'd like to hear about it, and how it's working for you. Fair warning: I have no compunctions about stealing your best ideas if they make more sense than mine.
This post could fairly be seen as just another rant by a fringe wacko. No problem. It has been tremendously liberating to compose however, and I don't plan in inflicting it ad nauseum in the future.

Feel free to comment/criticize. I don't care to argue, however. Nobody changes their mind anymore.

21 comments:

Royalton said...

Hey Big Brother..Right On!

Farmer Bob said...

John,
Thanks for sharing your well considered thoughts. We are no more "special" than any other resident of our country (and world).

Googoo Muck said...

We have a discussion on Facebook about the statements in this blog. Come join the discussion here, here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/FAFDL/permalink/1734175546812086/

Florine said...

Excellent presentation. A lot of food for thought.

Ron Swanson

Francis Thicke said...

It's great to hear from a farmer who thinks for himself, rather than parroting lines (often disinformation) from farm organizations.

John Kelly said...

I can honestly say that every farmer I am friends with believes and acts according to these principles. Clearly not true of all farmers or farm organizations, but my hope is that it's more prevalent than it appears from media narratives on farm lobbying.

Jones Organics said...

Preach it brother!I must say that you have articulated,quite effectively, many of my same thoughts. The difference being l'm generally voicing these things to myself in a tractor, where as you have really put it out there. Thank you for doing that.
Rob Jones

Ron Ellermeier said...

Extremely well stated, John. I wish your thoughts may have wide circulation. I get really exercised over opposition to WOTUS. We have a beautiful creek flowing by our north property line. By the time it reaches its mouth, twelve miles east, it is pea-green and smelly, flowing by two feedlots along the way. A creek flowing just south of another farm property is red-brown from other feedlot runoff. Farm impact on waterways is huge and obvious. Perhaps I'm naive to think that WOTUS would help. It would still require enforcement, as well as a caring and responsive community of farmers.

Jones Organics said...

Preach it brother!I must say that you have articulated,quite effectively, many of my same thoughts. The difference being l'm generally voicing these things to myself in a tractor, where as you have really put it out there. Thank you for doing that.
Rob Jones

Chris Leggett said...

Your points about the need to take personal responsibility for actions (and inaction) are cogently argued and well taken. And I really appreciate your approach of not just complaining about a problem but actually proposing solutions to fix it! This has got to be one of my favorite posts I have read in a long time. And as someone who works in government, I must also say thanks for your statement that everyone is deserving of respect, even people like me!

James C. Trager said...

A sane and reasoned voice in a contentious time. I can't help but think abut certain western ranchers' need to reckon with this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your refreshing, brilliant comments. Accountable Agriculture. Perfect. I am not a farmer but I live in the rural midwest and work for an organization that every day addresses the impacts of factory farms. The pork industry does not take responsibility for the damage it inflicts on communities. It may be driven by corporate honchos whose main goal in life is to make money for the corporation, but it takes farmers to make the system run. I hope some will hear this call to responsible agriculture. Thank you for your courage to speak this truth because it goes against the grain of agricultural entitlement and I'm sure you will be hearing about it.

Abundant Design, LLC said...

+1

Abundant Design, LLC said...

Well written! Found it on Facebook, will share it there too.

Abundant Design, LLC said...

Well written! Found it on Facebook, will share it there too.

Anonymous said...

Well stated. As a farmer this is how I choose to farm. But if you are looking to government as the solution to this problem you are dreaming. As Ronald Reagan said, "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

John Phipps said...

Anon: You might want to see the entirety of the "problem" quote. It was not delivered as an all-encompassing rule.

http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/reagans-first-inaugural-government-is-not-the-solution-to-our-problem-government-is-the-problem.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link John. I was using it as an all encompassing rule, specifically in reference to modern American civil governemnt.

Anonymous said...

Words to farm by. "On my farm, it's my fault."

Dean

Kent Wagoner said...

John, this post almost exactly covers something I wrote about recently in one of my newspaper columns, but yours being from the viewpoint of a *real* farmer. (I work for a university ag research station.) I was hoping you might allow me to reprint it in its entirety, as I have done with other bloggers in the past. As always, I will reprint it verbatim and give you full credit, along with your short bio and your photo. I write for a small, local farm community paper of less than 1,000 circulation.

I will also send this by email, to which you can reply directly if you wish. Thanks!

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